Isobel Roach reviews As If To Sing by Paul Henry, a collection which blurs past and present to reflect on the power of song.
In the latest collection of work from esteemed Welsh poet Paul Henry, lyricism and song are everything. As If To Sing explores the human condition through the language of music across three distinct sections, and does so with a mastery of poetics. Henry offers a meaningful insight into what it means to be a father, to be a poet, and a human being. A desire to communicate, to articulate one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, permeates the collection. Voices sing out into the darkness, as in the hauntingly tragic ‘Cave Songs’, a poem whose speaker is lost in a cave, and sends out to his lover, ‘this andante light, this echo of the sun because you know the tune’. A spiritual form of nature is the intermediary here, the conduit through which songs of desperation and desire are sung out. The collection’s first poem opens with this very image; ‘I heard a woman’s grief in clear water’. This imagining of a ‘public grief turned private’ is the key to Henry’s skill as a poet – he is able to translate the personal into the universal. The first section of poetry, similarly titled to the collection itself, demonstrates this beautifully in the eponymous poem, ‘As If To Sing’. Music is a living repository of memory that transcends the passage of time, and even death. Earlier allusions to Eurydice point to Henry’s poetic desire to cross the metaphorical threshold of the underworld, and this inclination is lived out in ‘As If To Sing’, a poem that sees Welsh soldiers prepare for the Battle of Passchendaele, from which they may not return. ‘Last night, for safe-keeping, they packed their hearts into a song’, we are told, ‘So when only one in four parts of their harmony returned, for roll call, the song still held them all’.
The passage of time also plays a central role in the collection’s second sequence, ‘The Boys in the Branches’. Dedicated to Henry’s sons, these poems are concerned with fatherhood, and what it means to watch a child enter adulthood and forge their own identity. A sense of fleetingness, of time passing too quickly, is evident from the very first poem in the sequence, ‘To His Sons’, where the poet remarks ‘As suddenly as it arrives a shower disappears’. The transiency of growing up is beautifully expressed through the imagery of nature, as Henry writes that his sons ‘carve their names on the late sun’ in his poem ‘The Tree out the Back’. Identity is a thing that shifts and grows along with the boys themselves as they search for their selfhood amidst the branches of trees. Music retains its power throughout this section too, as Henry’s young son ‘sings, without knowing, a song with no beginning or end’. There is an intimacy in this moment of lyrical harmony; a deeper connection between father and son that is only made possible through a shared language of song.
Departing from contemplations of family and adulthood, As If To Sing’s final sequence, ‘The Weight of the Sea’, turns to the mythic as Henry carves out a post-apocalyptic epic. The speaker himself returns to childhood in ‘The Key to Penllain’, a surreal, 1960s-set extended poem about the search for a missing key with the power to change the world. This poem is full of a sense of play and adventure, but retains the collection’s delicate use of language and overall thoughtfulness. Here, time defies its own linearity once again, with the childish speaker searching for ‘the secret key each clock keeps’. He is uncertain if he’ll find it at ‘the start or the end of time, or no time’. Nostalgia seeps through this extended piece that is steeped in nostalgia, and articulated through a distinctly childish voice – ‘Let’s go! And take your spade. We’ll dig for it.’ Alongside the poem’s child adventurers are a series of figures from Greek mythology, effortlessly integrated with the mundane to startling effect; we see ‘Hermes strumming some Dylan’ on the beach, and ‘Artemis and Apollo arguing over a spear-gun’. As the poem reaches its climax, the speaker and his companion dig for the key, ‘leaning over the rim of childhood’ into the unknowable darkness within. We are reminded of the collection’s beginning, and Henry’s lost caver on the brink of the underworld, a song reaching out to the surface. This return to the start makes for a perfect ending to a collection that defies the linear pull of time.
As If To Sing by Paul Henry is available via Seren.